The title we have given to these materials is meant to trip readers up ever so slightly. The premise most preachers take for granted is that they will preach about the evil of mass incarceration to their congregation, and it goes without saying that in most cases the congregants won’t be physically restricted. Most preachers do not preach to “captives” in that sense. Yet the assumption made here is that many of the sincere believers who come to church regularly are nevertheless held captive to some degree to ideas about crime and “criminals” that are part of this culture’s dominant narrative. That narrative insists that we lock a lot of people up in the United States because we have a lot of bad people here. And further, that locking them up has made us significantly safer over the past 40 years.
To use a word that our 16th president used most appropriately in 1862, we must “disenthrall” ourselves in relation to this narrative. White people in particular must look squarely at the hard-to-miss racial dimension within the narrative. And all of us must seriously interrogate the part of us that is content with a system in which we respond to violence and threat with yet more violence and threat: a way of engaging others that is about as far removed from the Jesus way as can be imagined. We must, in theologian Walter Brueggemann’s words, “emancipate our imaginations” in order to participate in the larger emancipatory project.
For each of the 10 preaching texts given here — one a week for 10 weeks in all — we provide some of the biblical context first. Then we invite the preacher to ponder a set of questions. And finally we suggest some possible homiletic directions.
There is no doubt that some of the messages proposed here will be hard for congregants to hear and thus hard as well for preachers to preach. We urge our colleagues in pulpit ministry to pray earnestly for their personal strength and courage, even as we pray earnestly for God to bless and sustain the prophets whom these difficult times require.
Past texts in this series:
- Luke 4:18-19 – Jesus Identifies Himself with Radical Liberation
- Luke 14:24 – Unexpected Guests at God’s Abundant Table
- Luke 15:11-32 – Welcoming the Prodigal’s Return
- Mt. 7:1-5 – The Measure You Give Is the Measure You Get
- Mt. 12:1-14 – Higher Laws
- Mt. 18:21-35 – Forgiveness Without Limit
- Mt. 26:59-60 – The Trial of Jesus
- Jeremiah 31:29/Ezekiel 18:2 – No Multi-Generational Curse
- Hosea 6:6/Isaiah 58:6-9 – The “Worship” That Pleases God
Please note that the 10 preaching texts have been developed for use in Christian pulpits. Materials relevant to other faith traditions will be forthcoming.
IV. John 8: 1-11 – Neither Do I Condemn You
Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.
This passage in John’s gospel follows a section of text in which the temple police, sent by the religious authorities to arrest Jesus, have come back empty handed and are sharply chastised by the authorities for not doing their job and for being somewhat won over by Jesus’s words.
But one of the Sanhedrin members—the very same Nicodemus who came privately to Jesus in Chapter 3—raises doubts about the validity of simply arresting Jesus without any due process.
Nicodemus taunts his colleagues with this question: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”
This then becomes the backdrop for the new encounter with the authorities that opens Chapter 8. Arriving early at the Jerusalem temple, Jesus faces another baited trap. The authorities bring to him a woman whom they have been able to catch (in their words) “in the very act of committing adultery.” They demand to know what Jesus has to say about her punishment, reminding him of a Mosaic mandate that such a despicable person should be stoned to death.
Here Jesus does a strange thing. He hunkers down and starts writing in the dirt with his finger. His enemies keep yammering at him and taunting him. Finally, he stands and utters the famous line about the one who is without sin casting the first stone. Once again, he hunkers down and writes on the ground.
In stunned silence, those who had set the trap for Jesus wander away one by one until just Jesus and the accused woman are left alone. With her standing before him, Jesus gently says (in effect – we paraphrase), “I don’t see any accusers here, do you? It appears that no one is condemning you.” Her reply: “No, not a single one.” The passage closes with Jesus saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Questions for the Preacher’s Meditation and Preparation
- Do I think it’s true that religious authorities in all eras tend to be quick to judge people? Why might this be? Where does the judgmental element in religion come from?
- Where do I personally draw the line between a lapse or sin, and a punishable crime? Do I see how the two sometimes get confused when, say, a young person does jail time for possessing and using marijuana? That is, it might be stupid behavior, but is it criminal behavior?
- What do I make of the hunkering down and writing in the dirt? Is this just Jesus’s way of insulting for rebuffing those who want to trap him, or does it perhaps have a larger significance?
- Besides sparing her life, what is the nature of the gift that Jesus is giving to this woman?
Possible Homiletic Directions
- Preach on the double standard that women are still held to when it comes to sexual behavior.
- Preach a lament sermon on the impulse to judge and condemn that is so deeply rooted in our religious culture.
- Try preaching from the point of view of the woman herself: what must it feel like to be humiliated in the temple—and to be right at death’s door—and then to have Jesus rescue her.
- Explore what’s going on with Nicodemus in Chapter 7: i.e., the phenomenon of certain people in high places who speak out and who refuse to go along with “rough justice.” Who are the Nicodemuses of our time in relation to the incarceration issue?
- Delve into the difference between a pardonable sin and a punishable crime. Relate this to the huge number of people who are severely punished in this country for victimless “crimes” involving drug possession and use.
- Use this passage as part of a larger preaching project on the meaning of restorative justice.
- Explore the importance of Jesus saying, in effect, that severe punishments can only be meted out by those who are themselves personally blameless. What are the implications for prosecutors and judges who hand out long prison sentences – or who sentence people to death by execution?